'Your story can become their survival guide,' Virginia firefighter says after life-changing loss

'We want people to come today and drop that shield. I want to build a community of people who are OK talking about this.'
Chesterfield Fire Lt. Kenny Mitchell
Posted at 1:22 PM, Sep 03, 2023
and last updated 2023-09-03 13:30:47-04

CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. -- A veteran Chesterfield firefighter has created an initiative in hopes of shedding light and addressing the mental health crisis plaguing first responders.

Chesterfield Fire Lt. Kenny Mitchell said life was reshaped in 2020 when a close friend who was also a firefighter died unexpectedly.

“I sat across each other for four hours talking, but did we talk?" Mitchell recalled. "No, because 17 days later he lost his own life to mental health."

Chesterfield Fire Lt. Kenny Mitchell
Chesterfield Fire Lt. Kenny Mitchell

After that loss, Mitchell knew he had to do something to help first responders address their internal struggles. So he created the nonprofit group Operation Yellow Tape in hopes of easing the stigma.

"Sometimes as first responders, we think we can only talk to each other. We think it's just us that we can talk to," Mitchell said. "They're too many of us. Why are we walking around saying there's no one to talk to?"

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Mitchell said his organization works to connect first responders and their families to show that mental health struggles are normal and need to be talked about openly.

“We all have those mental health setbacks and it’s OK to talk about it," he said.

Mitchell held his second event bringing first responders from across the country together on Saturday at Independence Golf Club.

The 20-year fire service veteran said attendees last year told him the event promoted a change. In fact, some got physicals or linked with a counselor. For others, the event marked the first time they had ever really felt seen, Mitchell said.

Chesterfield Fire Lt. Kenny Mitchell
Chesterfield Fire Lt. Kenny Mitchell

This year's event also created a safe space with mental health and self defense workshops, golf, games and time for people to talk.

“We want people to come today and drop that shield," Mitchell explained. "I want to build a community of people who are OK talking about this."

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Mitchell hopes those conversations continue after the event. That way first responders not only continue life-saving work in their communities, but also carve out time for themselves and ensure their well-being is a priority.

"I want them to understand that today's the day that you surround yourself with like-minded people who want to see you get better," Mitchell said.

Connect with Mitchell via his Instagram account or on the Operation Yellow Tape website.

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